Conflict is part of life. And that means it’s part of our relationships, even with those we love most. I just don’t think there’s any way around this. Could the Dalai Lama avoid fighting with his spouse—not to mention his ex-spouse—while trying to raise children? I’d like to think so, but then again, perhaps there’s a reason that His Holiness isn’t married.
I’m constantly juggling the needs of my two opinionated kids, my ex-husband, and my romantic partner (who has to balance my needs with those of his own kids and ex-wife). Given all these potentially conflicting needs, I’ve found it helpful to know how to pick a fight without causing World War III.
Above all, it’s important to take the right perspective. Sure, you could see a conflict as a competition, a fight for who’s right and who’s wrong. But that’s not gonna raise anyone’s happiness.
Instead, it’s more constructive—and less stressful—when “picking a fight” to realize that we’re actually initiating a problem solving effort.
Here is the method I’ve devised, by studying John Gottman’s research, to initiate problem solving without actually starting a knock-down-drag-out. There are three things to keep in mind when you are about to issue a complaint. (But first, a caveat: Whether you’re dealing with your spouse, your teen, or even your ex-spouse, an essential part of raising happy kids is to keep conflict low. That said, these techniques are relevant to conflicts with just about anyone.)
Say your partner has not been pulling his or her weight in the kitchen lately, and you are starting to feel frustrated and resentful every time you find yourself cleaning up the dinner dishes while he or she watches TV.
1) Start with an appreciation AND an “I statement”
How you begin is important. According to Gottman, in 96 percent of cases, the first three minutes of a conversation can determine the fate of it all—whether or not a massive fight erupts, constructive solutions are found, or whether apologies are issued and accepted.
Express gratitude, and then use that same “I statement” we ask kids to use (“I felt X when you did Y”). The key is not to strike a match, even if you are angry.
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“You never help me in the kitchen anymore, ya lazy jerk.”
AN APPRECIATION + AN “I STATEMENT”:
“I appreciate how much time you are spending at work; I know you are putting in long hours for our family and I’m grateful for that. I want you to be able to relax at the end of the day. The problem is that I also want to relax; I felt angry and resentful tonight when you didn’t help me clean up the kitchen.”
2) Remain Calm. Or find a way to calm down.
Remember, you have a problem you need to solve. For that, you’ll need the more evolved part of your brain to be in good working order, which it won’t be if you are primed for a “fight or flight” response.